UN envoy averts possible military coup in Myanmar

UN envoy averts possible military coup in Myanmar

A UN envoy has inadvertently acted as a peacemaker between Myanmar's top civilian leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the army commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Tension between the two leaders has been simmering since their confrontation during a top-level security meeting two weeks ago over the government's handling of Rakhine, and the UN's role in the return of thousands of Muslim refugees who have fled to Bangladesh for safety.

During these tense times, the UN secretary-general's special envoy to Myanmar, the Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, made her inaugural visit to the country since being appointed to the role. On her first official visit, which ended on Thursday, she met a range of key actors, including the state counsellor and the army chief. She held a number of extensive and frank discussions during her trip, which have helped ease tensions between the two protagonists. She also laid the foundations for a more constructive relationship between the UN and Myanmar.

The security meeting took place shortly after the government announced a National Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses allegedly committed during the military's security operations in Rakhine, following a spate of terrorist attacks that left a score of border guards dead. The meeting also happened to take place two days after the government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the UN outlining their participation in the return of the refugees, their resettlement, and the development of Rakhine State.

Although the details of the MoU have yet to be announced, they have already caused suspicion and resentment among the local Arakan people and the army. So far, the government has kept the details secret for fear of alienating communities in Rakhine. However, details of the MoU are expected to be published in the next few days, as a result of the UN envoy's intervention with Ms Suu Kyi who was able to convince the state counsellor that keeping secrets was counterproductive.

The main point of contention between the civilian government and the military was the composition of the commission of inquiry and the proposed participation of a foreign expert. "This is total anathema to the army," a former senior military officer, with links to the commander-in-chief, told the Bangkok Post.

"It's a red line that can't be crossed," he said emphatically. At the meeting with Ms Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, the army commander reacted angrily and even threatened a coup, according to several sources close to the army top brass. If you can't manage the government, then the army will have to take back power, as stipulated in the constitution, he reportedly said. But it is unclear if he meant the country as a whole, or simply Rakhine State. Under the constitution, the army commander can take "administrative power" either nationally or at a state level, if the army commander considers the country's security is under threat. In fact, in the latter part of 2012, the army took control of Rakhine, under a state of emergency, agreed to by the acting president Thein Sein.

After that meeting -- which ended abruptly -- both sides started preparing for a confrontation. Troops were pulled back from the frontlines in major cities and operations halted in the border regions, apart from Rakhine, to focus efforts on an expected confrontation in Nay Pyi Taw. "It might take months, but the army has to be prepared," said a former military officer, who advises the top army command.

The Tatmadaw -- as the Myanmar military is called -- have ceased operations and withdrawn their troops from the Kachin Independence Army's (KIA) first brigade area, located in the furthest northern part of KIA territory. However, this pullout might also be the result of the rainy season, when the army usually stops operations due to tough conditions for combat, according to several military intelligence sources in the region.

But the intervention of the UN envoy has taken the steam out of this battle between the civilian government and the Myanmar military. During her long discussion with Min Aung Hlaing earlier this week, Gen Min Aung Hlaing agreed to allow foreign participation in a national human rights inquiry. This is a significant concession for him -- though a very astute move on his part.

Of course, this does not mean its plain sailing for the commission of inquiry, as suggested by former Thai deputy prime minister and foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai, the chairman heading the advisory board set up by the Myanmar government last December to act as a soundboard and bring international perspective to plans for reconciliation and development in the western region of the country.

After months of discussion within the top echelons of government, Ms Suu Kyi opted for a three-member commission, including one international representative, although it is still undecided whether the foreign participant will chair the body. The search for that person is now under way. They are currently interviewing "candidates", after Jose Ramos Horta -- a Nobel Peace Laureate and former president and prime minister of Timor Leste -- who recently visited Nay Pyi Taw but declined to take the post. "He regarded it as a poison chalice," according to diplomats who talked after his visit.

Analysts and diplomats based in Myanmar believe it may be almost impossible to find an international representative, "foolish to take on this job". But more candidates are being sounded out, according to a government insider. The advisory board, who first suggested Mr Horta, has recommended that an Asean representative should be appointed. This may also placate the army, which privately believes the international participant should not be a Westerner or a Muslim.

Now that the army has accepted the idea of a National Commission of Inquiry, the participants are not the issue. But they will insist on being involved in their selection -- something the government is completely comfortable with, suggesting the participants need to be accepted by all sides: the government, the military, the local Arakan community and the international community. In the end, this investigation will only be as successful and credible, if the military cooperate. And that is certainly the next major hurdle to be navigated.

While the UN envoy has successfully averted an imminent battle between the civilian and military leaders, it has not necessarily ended the threat of a coup in the future. The threat, albeit unstated, remains. "What is required is to start building mutual trust between the government and the military," a former military officer told the Bangkok Post.

This is something that the UN envoy might be able to facilitate. She has already made a significant mark, and the hope is she will carry this process forward. After all, she believes her role amongst other things is to "serve as a bridge between the United Nations and Myanmar", as the statement released at the end of her trip said.


Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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